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How Fleet Street missed the Post Office scandal

Our national newspapers’ lack of interest in a multiple miscarriage of justice raises disturbing questions

Toby Jones as Alan Bates in ITV’s drama Mr Bates v the Post Office. Photo: ITV

Once upon a time, you returned to work after Christmas and talked about Angela Rippon doing high kicks for Morecambe and Wise or Del Boy becoming a millionaire. All good for a giggle.

But this year, the show that has captured our imagination is Mr Bates vs The Post Office and there is little to laugh about.

It is the dramatisation of a truly shocking story: hundreds of sub-postmasters persecuted and prosecuted by the Post Office over non-existent cash losses generated by a faulty computer system.

The human cost of what has been described as the most widespread miscarriage of justice in our legal history has been enormous. And still the victims – or their surviving families – await proper reparation, nearly a quarter of a century after the first prosecutions and a decade since the last.

“Why still no justice?” demanded the Mirror in its front-page splash on Wednesday last week. By the weekend, the Times was leading on a possible police inquiry, with Jo Hamilton its Saturday interview subject inside, while the next day its sister title focused on “Post Office fury intensifies”. Come Monday, it was the splash for the Mail and Metro, too, after Rishi Sunak piped up with more on-the-hoof promises/opinions to try to capture the prevailing mood and endear himself to voters.

Quite the haul for a scandal that had only previously secured top billing on a national front page only twice in the 15 years since it surfaced – once in the Mail and once in the Times, both by Tom Witherow. Indeed, Witherow has been responsible for half of the splashes generated by the saga up to Monday, having co-written the Thunderer’s lead with Catherine Baksi on Saturday.

A week into that (still ongoing) inquiry, Melanie Phillips asked in the Times: “Where’s the outcry over postmaster scandal?” and mourned “public indifference to the victimisation by officials of ordinary people”. Well, there’s an outcry now – and it’s quite clear that the public is far from indifferent. But for an answer to her question then, she might look to her own trade and her own newspaper.

The Times has certainly been on the case over the past couple of years – and more so since Witherow moved across from the Mail last year. There have been magazine features, quite a bit in the law section, and some strident leaders. But this level of interest did not surface until after the postmasters had fought and won their two biggest battles: first, their civil claim in which 550 were awarded £58m in a class action in December 2019, and then the quashing of 39 convictions on one day in April 2021. Before that first court victory, the paper had carried just four items on the subject – the biggest courtesy of Panorama – with a combined total of 470 words.

The fourth of those items was what newspaper people call a “nib” (news in brief) headlined “Post Office legal bill”, which read: “The Post Office has spent an estimated £5m in a legal battle with sub-postmasters. More than 500 people say computer glitches mean they were wrongly accused of false accounting and theft. The case will be heard in the High Court on Wednesday. The Post Office denies that the system was at fault. It may have to pay up to £1bn if it loses.”

Well, that’s not much of a story, is it? Five hundred people suing, a possible £1bn bill – which would fall to the taxpayer. And it’s all kicking off in a couple of days. Not worth sending anyone to court to have a listen.

And when the judgment finally came in a year later? A small double on page 31. “‘Fraud’ case costs Post Office £58m”. It’s all about the business. Nothing about the people. Where, as Phillips might have asked, was the outcry?

The Times was not alone in this. Most Fleet Street titles were blind to the story when the postmasters really needed them to open their eyes.

Meanwhile, a journalist called Nick Wallis had been plugging away since 2010. Private Eye had been on it since 2011. And before both of them, Rebecca Thomson of Computer Weekly magazine had broken the story – complete with seven case studies – after a six-month investigation back in 2009. Her colleague, chief reporter Karl Flinders, has been pursuing the story ever since.

Wallis has become the go-to man on this case. He has written countless articles, made radio and television programmes and written a book. It was his efforts for Radio 4 and Panorama that inspired the minimal national press attention before 2018. And, after that, the fact that he managed to get Geordie Greig’s personal email address.

As with the Stephen Lawrence case, a Mail editor’s personal link galvanised his paper. Greig had been having his ear bashed by a postmaster in the village where he had his weekend cottage, so was receptive to Wallis’s approach. Chief reporter Sam Greenhill was put on the case and stories started appearing with regularity.

To be fair, the Mail had already been ahead of the pack. It even reported Jo Hamilton’s original conviction back in 2008 – not because of the scandal that would later unfold, but because it recognised that 60 people turning up and cheering a defendant in court is pretty unusual. In 2013 it “exposed the glitch that wrecked dozens of lives” when the Post Office withdrew some prosecutions and announced a review (a move also reported by the Mirror). And it was back a couple of years later with a leak of the Second Sight forensic accountant’s review, following that up with a spread headlined “Decent lives destroyed by the Post Office”.

But until Greig set his hounds on the chase in late 2018, these stories – always deep inside the paper – had generally been flagged up by other media. Still, when the postmasters started winning, it was naturally the result of the Mail’s “campaign”: “Our £58m victory”, “Victory for the Mail as first postmasters cleared”, and the culmination of “The Mail’s 10-year fight for justice” (its first story had actually appeared only eight years earlier).

Now everyone’s on the bandwagon. The fight is for speedy compensation (can it be speedy when it’s already so belated?) and for former chief executive Paula Vennells to be stripped of her CBE. Both of which have been occasional refrains from Fleet Street ever since it properly woke up to the story five years ago.

But where was it before? Not one paper reported the awarding of that honour outside of the tiny-type complete list of names – Dame Twiggy was far more interesting – even though by that time they all knew about the devastated lives and the fact that postmasters were taking her organisation to court. And long after the story had finally broken through, the Sunday Express was alone in reporting last year that the Post Office was extending its contract with Fujitsu for the Horizon computer system at the heart of the scandal.

The nationals like to think they are important, that journalism is important. It is, but are they? Where were they when it mattered? If they’re so effective, how come this story came as a shock to all those new year TV viewers?

The Mail, which published just one front page lead in 15 years in its “victorious campaign” for the postmasters, ran seven splashes on the bounce on Keir Starmer having a beer and a curry during the pandemic. I bet people don’t need reminding about that.

There is a pattern here, where the big titles are constantly beaten on important issues by the trade press, the docudramas and the Panoramas. Rebecca Thomson first wrote about the postmasters four years before any national paper. Peter Apps of Inside Housing was writing about the dangers of cladding on high-rise buildings years before the Grenfell Tower disaster.

Jessica Hill of Schools Week wrote about crumbling buildings almost a year before RAAC caused schools to stay shut at the beginning of term in September. Shaun Lintern, now of the Sunday Times, turned up scoop after scoop – not least the Mid Staffs scandal – for the Health Service Journal and Nursing Times.

Don’t newspapers have specialists any more? People who read the trade press relevant to their beat and pick up and develop stories? And even if they don’t, everyone reads Private Eye. Why don’t news editors follow up its stuff? Is it because it’s too lefty? Too dangerous?

Do they really believe readers want a diet of royals, culture wars and Westminster bubblegum? Haven’t they noticed that while their circulations are falling off a cliff, publications like the Eye, Byline Times and – yes – TNE, publications that tell readers more than what whoever happens to be Tory prime minister this week wants them to hear, are putting on sales month by month?

It’s time Fleet Street woke up and did its job, instead of claiming kudos after everyone else has done theirs.

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